So how does Happy Ending Central handle the land of broken trucks, lost girlfriends and dead dogs?
It’s happened to anyone with kids – the Ooo, I wish we had planned that better moment, when, for all your meticulous vacation planning, your kids get an eye- or earful of something you would rather explain ... never.
So when Adventures by Disney approached me, I was curious. It’s got the family-friendly cred to be sure, but it is one thing to come to Disneyland or Disneyworld, where everything is choreographed to within an inch of its life, and another entirely to take the show on the road to places outside Walt’s four-fingered white-gloved reach — and some places are damn proud of it, thankyouverymuch.
Where would I go? Someplace only sorta “Disney,” like Tampa or San Diego? Nope. Nashville, they said.
For anyone even remotely into Garth Brooks or Dolly Parton, this is for you.
Doing It Disney
And Disney starts right away with the gobsmacking. Because when I walked into the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, I thought I had landed in Vegas. This. Hotel. Is. Huge.
So huge, in fact, they give you maps and there is a multi-acre indoor arboretum-cum-village complete with boat rides the whole Jolie-Pitt posse could take with room to spare. Not bad for a first day. The breakfast serenade by a local talent the next day also went over well. Well played, Disney, well played.
Simply put, do not underestimate the omnipotence of that mouse. An after-hours visit to the Ryman Auditorium, sacred birthplace of modern country music? Sure! A tour of the legendary RCA Studio B? You betcha! A stop by the Bluebird Cafe, pretty much a holy site to anybody into country music, complete with a sing-along? No problemo!
Where Dreams Come True
But first things first: Nothing set off a stampede of good publicity like the TV show about the ups, downs, backstabs, and closet cases of country music set in the city that is the veritable cauldron of the industry. So it goes without saying we got a Nashville Nashville tour, complete with the actual homes and businesses used as backdrops, including the drugstore where Hayden Panettiere infamously stole the nail polish.
Then we got serious. You could be excused for thinking the Ryman is a particularly large church; its born-again founder, Thomas Ryman, made it to be just that, but when a money crunch in the 1920s threatened, the quick-thinking Lula C. Naff stepped in. The Don King of her generation, Naff snagged Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, the Zeigfield Follies, Minnie Pearl, and even Theodore Roosevelt, turning the Ryman into one of the must-do stages of the nation. In a dazzling display of prescience, in 1943 she signed a local live musical review/radio show with a funny name, the Grand Ole Opry. It would stay there for the next 31 years, and virtually single-handedly introduced the world to country music.
To go to Nashville and not hear/see/feel/taste/touch country is like not seeing snow in Antarctica. It literally plays on street corners from little speakers on the lampposts. True country, I learned, is banjo-based, but any good art form adjusts to the time: The “Nashville Sound,” the studio-sculpted 1950s take on the genre, got the moniker thanks to the jangly nerves of some swivel-hipped country boy named Elvis Presley (in top photo) who got the vapors at the idea of flying and insisted on a Nashville-based studio.
RCA Studio B became the epicenter of the city’s growing musical presence; it was here that Presley recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight in one go. However, because the King was also highly sensitive to light, he demanded every bulb be turned off. He then sang magic ... until he headbutted the mic, which went off like a thunderclap in the equally darkened sound room. The mistake was fixed (a razor and some tape went a long way back then), but the studio recording of the song contains a faint “clickity-clack” in the last six seconds. It’s the remnant of the headbutt.
But do not think that Disney is content with trivia and a wander-through – au contraire! Near a small blue “X” on the floor where Elvis made music history, we all recorded our own song. Even got a CD of it.
Equally revered is the Bluebird, and if there was ever a place belonging in the “You Can’t Make This Up” column, this is it. A low-to-mid-range eatery stuffed into a strip mall, the floor space is cramped, its stage for the occasional live music tiny, and its ability to pump out hit-makers unprecedented from the moment Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks got their feet in the door because – yes, this happens – a studio exec was lunching there at the time when they were the entertainment. Today, it is the place to play, people are lined up at the door, and you would have an easier time trying to get a table at Spago’s. Thanks to that mouse in the red shorts, we had the place to ourselves.
Along with the singers. As we munched on down-home mac-‘n’-cheese with bacon (humina-humina), Leslie Satcher and Walker Hayes brought out their guitars and showed what real talent sounds like. Satcher is traditional country, Hayes more GenX-y; Satcher has a voice so clear and strong the thought of her shouting strikes terror, and while I’m sure Mr. Hayes wants to be known for his music, I could not help but marvel at his arms, which are so thick I thought he would slice through the guitar strings.
Disney is also mindful of the history to be had; Nashville was long on the map before country music was. In the Appalachian hills outside the city, the Hermitage, the estate of native son and president Andrew Jackson, engages the local youth through its Junior Docents, who, in costumes of the era, act as guides for each part of the mansion and surrounding gardens. They are helped in part by Andrew Jackson himself, who shuttled us off to dinner and a traditional reel (a folk dance popular in the 1800s). But no “Song of the South” whitewash this; for all its stately presence, the Hermitage was at its core a plantation dependent on slave labor, a fact everyone involved acknowledges and, refreshingly, explores.
Please Don’t Stop The Music
As far-reaching as Adventures by Disney is, I still had free time. I checked out the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — can’t miss it, it looks like a piano — and it for anyone interested in country’s backstories, it is Ground Zero of Nashville (the “gold record walls” are selfie-city). A fun tangent for kids is Hatch Show Print, a latter-day woodblock printing press in the museum building where kids (and big kids) can make their own posters.
After all the history, I was itching for something “now.” For that, I hit Broadway and its domino line of honky-tonks blaring out music from every window, door, and chimney. Like the Bluebird, icons like Tootsies and Honky Tonk Central are native habitat for country music’s newest acts.
Now for the catch: It is married to the over-21 crowd. Broadway is basically two rows of bars separated by a stretch of asphalt that is a madhouse by 5:30 p.m. A few G-rated sights are to be had – the Johnny Cash Museum and Goo-Goo Cluster candy factory – and with a little creativity, fun abounds. Can’t get into a bar? No problem; just hang out on the sidewalk and check out the local talent playing on the street corner (nab cone from the famous Mike’s Ice Cream to keep everybody happy). Kids and teens are more than welcome at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, but even here, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.
And this is where the Grand Ole Opry comes in. It’s five minutes from the Gaylord Opryland, a typical show is two hours, and it’s as pure as Donny Osmond. In 1969, it was clear the Ryman Auditorium was falling apart; in 1974, everyone, Opry included, had to move out. But even before the Ryman got its much-needed nip/tuck, the Grand Ole Opry House was already under construction; in 1974, without skipping a beat or missing a broadcast, the Opry show moved into the Opry House, and has gone strong ever since. Mindful of tradition, a disk of the Ryman stage was inset into that of the Opry House, symbolic of country music’s unbroken lineage.
Of course it is on the Disney itinerary. Along with dinner. And a back stage tour. And a show. I was impressed.
And that is what it is like to see a city that has nothing to do with Disney through the Magic Kingdom lens. And best of all, at no point did an oversized rodent swoop in for a hug. I’ve got my limits.